January 29, 2019
Five-year old wisdom. They know waaaaayyyy more than we do.
Ever start a marathon with an immediate one mile uphill at 9,250 feet above sea level? You know how you do it? You. Just. Go.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!
(Happy New Year in Vietnamese)
One of the great things about living abroad is getting to celebrate your own and your host country's holidays. So, a few weeks ago, I partied in the New Year listening to classic rock and roll with a batch of new friends in a cool café in Saigon called the Old Compass. Next week, I'll party in the new (lunar) Year of the Pig while saying bye-bye to the Year of the Dog.
We are also just one month away from the start, sort of, of the Greater Yellowstone Adventure Series (GYAS) New Year. Online registration, the real official one, opens at 12:00 high noon Montana time on March 1. We had a lot of runners sign up for our early bird opening, but we've only just started. Now, it's time to get ready for the real McCoy. It's time to pull out the maps and check out all the cool places in and around Yellowstone that you can visit before or after you do a GYAS race.
It's time to Decide to Go. In this spirit, I've pasted below the first draft of chapter two of the Project Marathon book. Enjoy, send me your comments and ideas if you have 'em, and mostly listen to your inner five-year old. Five-year olds are so much smarter than we will ever become. They know what life's all about. They know how to just go.
Stay Happy, Heathy, and Always Keep Running Forward.
"Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible."
Shakespeare's Julius Caeser
Prominently placed at eye level near my writing desk is a picture of pure joy. It's one of my favorite photos. It's of my son Colter when he was in kindergarten and running in a relay race. One of the reasons it's a favorite is his running form. It's perfect. That's what happens when you teach a child how to run and use Usain Bolt as the model.
Keep your shoulders square and your back straight. Your head should lean oh so slightly forward. Splay your hands out in a vertical knife-like position as if cutting the air in front of you. The front foot should reach out, extending the toes and ball of the foot like a ballet dancer set to land. The back foot should land on the ball of the foot and then leap off the ground as if it had just landed on a hot bed of coals. It then jets forward to the ballet position in sync with the arms and the knife-shaped hands that cut the wind resistance in front of you. Repeat. All the way to the finish line.
It's actually quite easy to teach a five-year old how to run like Usain Bolt, especially with the help of YouTube. Kids are greatat mimicry. Copy the best and there's a good chance that you'll have the form of the best. Speed can come later.
It's a beautiful photo, but that's not why it gives me such joy. That's not why it's at eye level of my writing desk. I have a million photos of my son. It's the smile on Colter's face. Pure elation. Pure joy. He, like every five year old on earth, was doing what he was born to do. Run. And doing so was just so much fun.
At all costs, writers try, or should try, to avoid clichés. I know I do. But, I can't avoid the cliché of "a picture paints a thousand words" with the photo of my five year old sprinting towards his friends to help his team win the relay race. It tells way more than a thousand words. It helps explain the world-wide growth of organized sporting events. It tells the story of this whole book, and most definitely this chapter. It tells the story of who we are as human beings.
Why do people go? Because it's just so goddamn much fun to do so. We were born to Go.
In most sports, the start is crucial. Getting out of the blocks in a sprint (Usain Bolt is pretty good at that), winning the coin toss, or getting the tip off so you get the ball first is important. Trends, runs, and being in the zone are tied to a starting point. The time when someone says, 'Go.'
Long distance events are different. There is an impatience to get started, for sure, but it's not like a bunch of jittery athletes are bouncing around, stretching, and doing their best to get into the zone.
It's more of a "Come on, man. Let's get going. I've been thinking about this for months." Then, like with everything from one of Elon Musk's Space X rockets to a not-really-in-shape-50-something-year old race director (i.e. me running the Madison Marathon route), you just begin. You move forward. You start your marathon or your triathlon or your IRONMAN or your cycling race or your 5K.
You Just Go.
There's a ton of things you already know. The distance, where the aid stations are, the pace you hope to keep, and the time you hope to record. There are also things you expect to happen ~ the heat might get to you, hydration might be an issue, the hills are going to suck, and that thing called 'The Wall' on a marathon might rear up way before Mile 20 and whack you in the privates.
It's what you don't know and really can't know until you actually go that matters. It might be a whack to the privates in the first mile or it might be a "Really? I didn't see that coming." Whether you're running the marathon or race directing it, shit happens.
That's part of the deal.
It is, apparently, a deal that a lot of people in the world are willing to accept. Robin and I had no clue what we were doing in 2008 at the Inaugural Madison Marathon. We just thought that hosting a marathon in Madison County would be cool and good for the local economy.
Robin had a Missoula friend who was part of the founding group for the Missoula Marathon. He graciously sent us a long list of things we should do and/or watch out for. They had already launched in 2007 so they had a year's head start on us which may as well have been 100 years. We were so winging it.
In their first year, the Missoula folks were probably winging it a bit too (it's a Montana trait) but they definitely had their shit together. In December 2009, just three years after its launch, none other than Runners World magazine bestowed on the Missoula Marathon the title of 'Number One Best Overall Marathon in America.' Pretty cool for Montana!
And for us in 2008? Talk about starting at ground zero.
First, we decided on a route that was remote as all hell deep into the Gravelly Range mountains. Since there was absolutely no infrastructure, we had to find a porta-potty supplier. Then, in order to know how many porta-potties to get, we had to research how often a marathon runner shits during a race. Who the hell knows that? We also had no money so we elected to pick up and drop off the porta-potties on our own. There's a lot of trucks and flatbed trailers in Southwest Montana so we got that covered easily, but learning how to strap down a porta-john to a flatbed and drive it 30 miles deep and high into Montana's backcountry was new territory.
And so it went for shirts, food, transport, aid stations, and volunteers. Timing? Can I use my phone? Will runners care that much [an absolutely naïve question in hindsight]?
Anyway, in Montana get 'er done fashion, we launched and completed the Inaugural Madison Marathon. Despite the elevation, the three mile uphills, and incredible headwinds on race day, no one died and everyone......everyone was totally blown away by the beauty of the route on top of the Gravelly Range.
It was Labor Day Weekend of 2008. The colors were stunning. The sky was the Montana deep, deep blue of postcard fame. Driving down off the Gravelly Range, pulling a hay trailer with two dirty shitters strapped down and sloshing, I really felt like crying not because we had successfully hosted an inaugural marathon, but just because it was so beautiful. And in another Montana fashion, it snowed that night and the Gravelly Range was completely covered in white by morning.
By year four, the Madison Marathon sold out a month before race day. A couple years later, the begetting began. Vague, untested, and what-the-hell-let's-see-what-happens thoughts about something called the Madison Trifecta began to emerge. In 2012, we said 'Go' to the Madison Duathlon and the Madison Triathlon. Both started in one place (A) and finished in another place (B) which is a logistical pain in the ass, but what did we know. We had an idea for a race series that was one of a kind. I was convinced, with absolutely no evidence to back me up, that there were athletes ready to take on a supreme challenge. They would do the Madison Trifecta - all three races within a four-week time frame. A duathlon (14 mile bike and seven mile run), a marathon (the Madison Marathon at 9,000 feet in elevation), and then an Olympic distance triathlon. It would be the new Everest for sports.
Well, it was and it is, but back in 2012 just two intrepid, beautiful, wonderful souls of athletic human beings signed up for the whole smash - The Madison Trifecta. Nels Houghton and Richard Rose both had to learn how to swim so they could compete in the Madison Triathlon. They did and earned a title that I feel reflects the spirit and character of any athlete that sets out to do the seemingly impossible and most definitely the irrational. They do so because they just decide to Go.
The title they earned came from a friend who would fit in perfectly with the cast of any chick-flick movie. Though he was an Ohio-born, Montana living guy, my friend Todd had the unkempt hair, surfer good looks, snowboarding build and overall spirit of the Millennial Dude generation. When I told him about the Madison Trifecta, he said, "Man, anyone who could do that would be such a total bad ass."
Thus was born the TBA, the Total Bad Ass. The sporting world's New Everest, the new Gold Medal. Ours was in Montana, but these 'New Everest' ideas were popping up all over the place by 2012. Things were booming.
The Sports Boom
From A to Z and in just the past 10 years, it seemed that everyone suddenly felt like running. Everyone was saying 'Go.'
By 2016, there were four marathons in Antarctica as well as two in Afghanistan. At the other end of the alphabet, there was a marathon a piece in Zambia and Zimbabwe. There were gobs of marathons in between for the rest of the letters. What's going on? Is the entire world getting their Forrest Gump on?
In 2001, the total number of marathons worldwide had just surpassed 1,000 races. In 2015, it went over 5,000 races according to the Association of Road Racing Statistics (ARRS) website, an exceptionally interesting website for followers of long distance running events. In 2018, they estimated around 6,000 marathons around the world.
The marathon breakdown for countries is like a UN directory. Every country, it seems, has to be able to say to the world, 'Yeah, Man, we got a marathon. Wanna run here?'
If you just scroll down the list and note the number of countries involved in hosting marathons, it appears that Denmark, for some reason, has a bunch of marathons. I've never been to Denmark, but I don't believe it's that large of a country in terms of area or population. So why so many marathons? I guess the Danes got more than a few things figured out beyond wind power, pickled herring, multi-lingual citizens with nice smiles, and an exceptionally high level of 'happiness.'
That's right, happiness.
According to a recent study published by the United Nations, the Danes are the happiest people in the world - at least they were in 2016. The country has always cracked the Top Five in happiness and contentment lists published by the UN (and other studies and surveys back this up). A few years back, it hit Number One for happiness two years in a row. Perhaps the 'happiness' index is a correlation (or more likely a causation) of the number of marathons in the country.
The 'happiness' angle was one of a handful of themes in Born To Run, Christopher McDougall's fantastic book on running. Why do we run? It's who we are, it's why we were born, and it's fuuuunnnnn! We're supposed to run.
Montanans know the happy feeling. Though we don't necessarily make the list on international research projects, I've read several studies that report what Montanans feel about their home and life. We're a happy bunch. We're proud of where we grow up. When we leave, we can't wait to return. And, it often feels like tons of outsiders want to live here. Montana ranks in the Top Five in various categories having to do with happiness, pride, contentment, healthy living, and love of the outdoors. We hit number one quite often. None of this is a surprise to Native Montanans like myself. For a bunch of reasons, we kinda like our backyard. This is a big reason I started the GYAS and rolled out the red carpet for athletes from around the world.
I wasn't alone. IRONMANs, Color Me Whatever Color You Want 5Ks, marathons, mud runs, Spartan races, and especially Ultras went into 'Go' overdrive. In early 2018, The Guardian published a wonderful article on ultra running titled 'When Running 26.2 Miles Is Not Enough." It described a boom in ultras that occurred just within the past decade or so. From around 160 Ultras to more than 1,800 over the past 12 years. Or just in North America, 18,000 Ultra finishers in 2003 to 105,000 in 2017. Prior to these trends, the ultra market was still comprised of tribal warriors who, for whatever reason, enjoyed running for 10 plus hours on the shittiest terrain to be found.
Something had happened. Whether it was an ultra or a 5K, it was like someone blew a whistle heard round the world to say to pent up, anxious, impatient runners from pretty much every country in the world to go ahead and go. It was time. Race directors appeared either with community, financial, or social validation goals in mind and set up weird races all over the damn place. It was like a new Golden Age for Sports had begun.
Lives Well Led
While the infernal question of why this is happening is still out there, the races keep getting crazier. The runners are following suit (check out this chapter's race profile). It's like a brave new world.
Take the World Marathon Challenge. It started in 2015 and is now an annual event held in January. The runners are shuttled around the globe over seven days to seven continents so they can run seven marathons within those seven days. In 2015, there were just 10 runners who completed all seven races. This grew to 15 in 2016, 30 in 2017, and nearly 50 in 2018.
All the runners of the World Marathon Challenge and really any athlete who takes on any kind of challenge are inspirations. They are part of the reason many people, including myself, get up in the morning and try to do cool shit. They are living lives well led.
And some of them do so right up to the end.
Ed Whitlock, one of the world's very best marathoners from the Master's Division, is now running 26.2 somewhere above Montana. In 2017 at the age of 86, Whitlock succumbed to prostate cancer. His running resume includes records such as the first marathoner over 70 years of age to run a sub-three and the oldest marathoner to run a sub-four. In October 2016 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, he ran a 3:56:34 at the age of 85.
Accolades aside, I love the means by which he ran because he had a simple trick about the marathon. It's a trick we can all adopt. He just ran it. He didn't stress about training, diet, nutrition levels, gear, or anything commercial. He showed up, toed the line, and just ran. He said 'Go' and then he went. And he kept running until he got in 26.2. More often than not, he was the first of his age group to cross while also managing to beat runners decades younger than himself.
So how do you live a life well led? How do you pass on afteryou've already paid the entry fee for your next race or booked a ticket to go somewhere fun? How do you make sure your last check bounces or you get a DNS for the last race you signed up for because, though you tried like hell to run till the end, your body crapped out before your spirit?
How do you do this?
It's not rocket science. You show up. You toe the line. You go. It really is that simple. Whether you're just starting out or are well into midstream of a life well lived, you just Go because it's just so goddamn much fun to do so.
It helps to be a five year old, but it's not necessary. We can all learn. Kindergartners, in addition to being good at mimicry, are great teachers. They know so many things that way too many people have forgotten.
We just have to pay attention and follow them when they say,
"Come on let's go! Iddle be fun!"
The John Colter Club
The John Colter Club is a members-only club for athletes who are or have been:
An inaugural athlete in one of the six GYAS races.
Earned a podium finish (top three) in the overall men and women's category of any GYAS race.
Are a three-time returnee to a GYAS race.
We want to recognize those who went first, those who finished well, and those who just keep coming back. For a membership fee of $30 per year and immense bragging rights for getting in, members receive the following:
A personalized water bottle with the GYAS logo, your name, and the club's name.
Early access. Members get to sign up for the GYAS races before the March 1 opening.
A discount of 15 percent off the entry fee of the race you sign up for.
Do the math and you can figure out that your $30 comes back to you pretty quick. If you qualify and if you want to join an exclusive club of athletes named after Montana's most famous total bad ass, send me an email. Tell me how you qualify. I'll confirm it all and send you the application.